Legislative ‘Big Four’ don’t draw headlines but are key in shaping Minnesota budget

The headlines and passionate debates will continue to surround the legislators involved in such issues as gay marriage, guns and, likely, the Vikings stadium.

But real power is in the hands of those legislators who control the money.

Most of that work is done behind the scenes by the likes of veterans who chair key Senate and House committees: Sens. Dick Cohen (Finance) and Rod Skoe (Taxes) and Reps. Lyndon Carlson (Ways and Means) and Ann Lenczewski (Taxes).

Those four, working with legislative leadership, have completed a difficult portion of their jobs.

They’ve set the financial targets for the committees that will create the bills that determine the direction of the state in the next two years.

In coming weeks, most of the bills created by those committees will have to pass through the committees headed by the Big Four before they reach the House and Senate floors.

What gives this particular group more clout than their predecessors is the political reality that for the first time since Rudy Perpich was governor, the same party controls the governor’s office and majorities in both the House and Senate.

That means that budget and tax bills that pass through the legislative process are actually going to be signed. 

A DFL product

With that opportunity comes pressure. When this budget is finished, passed and signed, there will be no chance of shifting the blame to others if some groups are unhappy with the results.

This will be a DFL product.

“We need to show that progressive Democrats can do the job,” Cohen said of the responsibility that lies ahead. 

The work these four do is not glamorous.

“I read budget books and study spreadsheets” said Carlson, a 73-year-old retired Minneapolis schoolteacher who has been elected 21 times to represent the people of Crystal. “But what you always do is meet with the committee chairs and learn about what’s behind all those numbers.”

“I’m the scrivener of the Senate,” said Cohen, a 63-year-old St. Paul attorney who has been in the Legislature since winning a  House seat in 1976 and then moving to the Senate in 1986.

By comparison, Skoe and Lenczewski are legislative newcomers. Skoe, a farmer from Clearbrook, was elected to the House in 1998 and moved to the Senate in 2002. Lenczewski, who describes herself as a full-time legislator, was elected to represent Bloomington in 1998.

Here’s a closer look at the four who will have a large impact on Minnesota’s immediate future.

Sen. Dick Cohen

As a young man, Cohen never thought of running for elective office. Starting back at Highland Park High School when he volunteered for Hubert Humphrey campaigns, his goal was to be a political staffer, an insider.

“My goal in life,” Cohen said, “was to be someone like David Plouffe [a lead campaign adviser to President Obama and, later, a White House adviser].

Sen. Dick Cohen
Sen. Dick Cohen

But timing is everything.  At the time, he was thinking nationally, but the “right opportunity” didn’t present itself, so Cohen “fell into running for office [the Legislature].”

Cohen has kept his hands in national politics. He was among the first state legislators in the nation to support Obama’s presidential run and was a mighty fundraising bundler in both presidential campaigns. (In the 2008 campaign, Cohen raised about $1 million for Obama’s race and more than $400,000 in 2012.)

His support of the president wasn’t forgotten. He was appointed to a spot on the president’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Cohen is a major legislative player in Minnesota arts. He was the key legislator in tying arts funding to the Legacy Amendment. Most believe it was bringing together the arts community and the outdoor interests that created the momentum for the constitutional amendment’s successful passage by voters in 2008.

His fingers will continue to be all over how Legacy funds should be directed this session. He is chairman of the subcommittee on Legacy funding.

Early in his legislative career, Cohen found his interest in government finance.

“I became absorbed in how budgeting directs the state,” he said.

Only once in his 36 years at the Legislature has the process begun to wear him down, he said. That came in the era when deficits were almost as huge as the rift between Senate DFLers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“My energy has returned,” Cohen said.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson

Like Cohen, his Senate counterpart, Carlson loves history. When they meet, the two often end their meetings with long discussions of history, including what they’ve seen in all their decades at the Capitol.

Unlike Cohen, however, Carlson, a retired teacher and a grandfather, didn’t believe he’d spend so much of his life involved in politics.

“I was elected the first time, and ever since, I’ve been taking it one election at a time,” said Carlson. “So far, they’ve seen fit to send me back here 21 times. But I’ve never taken a single election for granted. You go out and work just as hard on your campaign the 21st time as you did the first.”

Carlson often seems more the social studies teacher than longtime politician. He’s unassuming. He doesn’t race to stand in front of television cameras. He doesn’t given flaming or snarky speeches on the House floor, though occasionally he stands and speaks softly about the history behind an issue that may be on the floor.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson
Rep. Lyndon Carlson

The great satisfaction of being a legislator, Carlson said, doesn’t necessarily come from some legislative victory or piecing together a budget.

“One of the rewarding parts of this job,” he said, “is when one of your constituents has a problem and you can do something to help. Usually that means being a facilitator of some kind — putting someone in touch with the person in government they need to talk to for an answer to their problem.’’

As most legislators quickly learn, Carlson discovered early on that power in the Legislature is tied to money.

The job — weighing the needs of the state versus balancing the budget — can be wearing.

Carlson says he stays in touch with all committee heads in a constant effort so that he never forgets that there are people, often those in great need, behind those huge dollar figures on the bills that come before his last-stop committee.

It’s remarkable to think how long Carlson has been coming to the Capitol. He was elected in 1972, when Harold LeVander was governor. He’s seen the succession of governors come and go — Wendy Anderson, Rudy Perpich, Al Quie, Perpich again, Arne Carlson, Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty — and he has kept coming back.

“It’s like any occupation,” Carlson said. “Sometimes, when I’m leaving the Capitol, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the best profession in the world.’ Other times, you leave the building and you’re thinking, ‘This didn’t work out so well.’

“But then, teaching was like that, too. There were days you’d leave the school and really feel good about how you connected. Other days, you thought you had something really interesting planned out and it just fell flat.”

Sen. Rod  Skoe

Skoe represents a sprawling district that includes parts of eight counties. He’s a farmer, the last in the Senate. He grows soybeans, yellow peas, wild rice and potatoes on a farm that covers more than 2,500 acres.

Unlike his metro DFL colleagues, Skoe is a gun-rights advocate, and he’s not made his position on gay marriage known.

But where he meshes with metro progressives is in his belief in “tax fairness” — a progressive system.

Skoe is in a unique position: He’s a rookie chairman of a Tax Committee filled with tax vets, including Majority Leader Tom Bakk and former Republican Majority Leader Dave Senjem. But Skoe says he’s delighted to be surrounded by experience.

What Skoe seems most excited about is a subsidiary committee, a tax reform committee, headed by Sen. Ann Rest. Its work, Skoe said, is not just some sort of esoteric legislative exercise.

Sen. Rod Skoe
Sen. Rod Skoe

He believes some tax reforms — though different from the ones first proposed but since withdrawn by Gov. Mark Dayton — will be moving on to the Senate floor.

But, of course, the big headline that’s likely to come out of his committee is the advancement of a fourth income-tax tier on the state’s biggest income earners.

Skoe is a get-it-done guy.

In a recent interview with an ag publication, he talked about his belief that the increase in the number who consider themselves full-time legislators has slowed down the processes at the Capitol. That situation, he says, means that too many legislators don’t have a reason to get back to their day jobs.

This year, though, there’s no reason for Skoe to hurry back home. Heavy snow still covers his farm, meaning planting will be delayed.

 Still, he thinks that the session will move on schedule and that, working with Lenczewski, the tax committees in the House and Senate will be able to produce the revenue needed to pay off the deficit and increase spending, especially in education.

Becoming a state legislator was not part of a life plan, he said.  Rather, he learned from his parents the importance of becoming involved in the community. So, it was natural that he would move from a local school board to county commissioner to become head of what typically is referred to in media accounts as “the powerful taxes committee.”

 “I know this sounds trite,” he said, “but I consider myself to be the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do important work here and at home.”

Rep. Ann Lenczewski

In many ways, Lenczewski was a forerunner to DFLers regaining control in the Legislature. Way back when she was running for the city council in Bloomington, she was proving a moderate Democrat could win in the suburbs.

Her moderation sometimes sets her apart from many in her caucus, but it’s been the template for the large number of gains the DFL made in the suburbs in the last election.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski
Rep. Ann Lenczewski

Moderation, however, doesn’t mean do-nothingness. In 2009, for example, Lenczewski proposed truly radical tax reform, which would have cut out scores of tax advantages enjoyed by the wealthy while lowering income tax rates for those in lower tiers. She even went after such sacred cows as the home mortgage deduction.

“We’ll see what kind of guts people have around here,’’ said Lenczewski at the time.

Hmmm. You probably know the answer to that. For all the talk from legislators of all stripes about the need for tax reform, when radical reform was laid out before them, they ran for cover.

 Don’t expect big reforms coming out of her committee this session. It’s her belief that creating meaningful reform at a time when there’s a budget deficit to deal with is all but impossible.

Although the House and Senate seem to be on different tracks in terms of raising revenue, the relationship between Skoe and Lenczewski will help smooth differences.

 The two power players came into the House together in the freshman class of 1998. And both value plain talk over political rhetoric.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 04/04/2013 - 12:03 pm.


    Minnesota is so fortunate that we have legislators willing to do the heavy lifting of real governance!

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/05/2013 - 06:01 am.

    Amen Beth-Ann

    I feel fortunate to be represented by Senator Cohen.

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